Producing notable research is hardly unusual for New College of Florida students. But few present it to a Congressional audience on Capitol Hill, as fourth-year psychology student Katherine Newton did last week.
Newton presented her work as part of the Council on Undergraduate Research’s Posters on the Hill. Her thesis project, on dolphins’ use of echolocation, was one of 60 chosen from a pool of more than 800 applications.
Her visit, April 23-24, included briefings, field trips and lectures, and meetings with Rep. Vern Buchanan and staff members for Sen. Bill Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio.
“Presenting my research on Capitol Hill was an amazing experience, not only because I had been selected from hundreds of students to be there, but also because it was being presented at the heart of where a lot of decisions are made concerning the funding for undergraduate research and a variety of other education policies,” Newton said.
“Washington, D.C. is the place to be for advocating such decisions, and that’s what the CUR Posters on the Hill event is all about—changing the way undergraduate research is viewed in the eyes of those representatives and senators that manage state funding.”
She also wanted to tell the legislators that undergraduates at all division of New College are doing ground-breaking research. “It’s not just one program that’s doing research at New College, it’s across all of the divisions,” she said.
Newton’s research examined echolocation, the way dolphins use a sort of sonar to identify objects in their environment. She examined whether dolphins “ping” all objects the same way, or whether they would decrease their clicks for objects they are familiar with or can identify easily.
An analogy is the way a person looks for a commonly used object in his or her home, as opposed to looking for an infrequently used object, or an object in someone else’s home. Previous research has shown dolphins’ echolocation is incredibly precise, able even to distinguish two identical shapes made from different alloys of a metal.
For her thesis, Newton analyzed recordings from hundreds trials in 2009 and 2010 where a male dolphin, at a central Florida aquarium, was shown an object, then asked to match it from a set of objects. The dolphin examined the same sets multiple times. (The dolphin wore latex eyecups, which it could remove independently and at will, to block its vision and force it to rely on echolocation.)
Newton found that when the object was easy to distinguish from the others, the dolphin’s number of clicks and time spent on the trial declined, indicating that it needed less effort to identify a familiar object. When the object was difficult to distinguish from others, such as having similar shape, size and material, there was little change in echolocation.
Prof. Heidi Harley, Newton’s advisor, said research has shown that dolphins’ echoic accuracy often drops when investigating new objects, but until now no one had assessed the mechanics of the changes. The research has relevance not only for marine biology but also for design and usage of sonar systems.
Newton had an internship at Mote Marine Laboratory last year, and is considering working with animals after graduation and then going on to graduate school. She is a graduate of Lemon Bay High School in Englewood, Fla.